Ancient human fossils from China suggest new theory of Native American origins

Researchers have achieved a groundbreaking feat by successfully sequencing the genome of ancient human fossils from the Late Pleistocene in southern China. This exciting discovery, published in Current Biology on July 14, sheds light on a mysterious hominin group that may have contributed to the ancestry of Native Americans.

The ancient DNA technique proved the Red Deer Cave people were indeed modern humans, despite their unusual physical features, ruling out the possibility of them being Neanderthals or Denisovans.

By comparing the genome of these fossils with global populations, scientists found a deep link to East Asian ancestry, suggesting that some southern East Asians traveled northward along the coast of eastern China, through Japan, and eventually reached Siberia tens of thousands of years ago. They then crossed the Bering Strait into North America, becoming the first inhabitants of the New World.

This remarkable journey began over three decades ago when archaeologists discovered a significant collection of bones in China’s Yunnan Province, dating back approximately 14,000 years during the Late Pleistocene era, a time when modern humans were migrating to various parts of the world.

The reproduced portrait of the Red Deer Cave People or Mengziren. Credit: Xueping Ji

Researchers unearthed a significant discovery in the cave—a hominin skull cap displaying a mix of modern and archaic human characteristics. The skull’s shape resembled that of Neanderthals, and its brain size appeared smaller than modern humans’, leading some anthropologists to speculate it belonged to an unknown archaic species or a hybrid population.

In 2018, Bing Su and colleagues, in collaboration with archaeologist Xueping Ji, successfully extracted ancient DNA from the skull. Genomic sequencing unveiled that this hominin belonged to an extinct maternal lineage of modern humans, whose descendants are now present in East Asia, the Indo-China peninsula, and Southeast Asia islands.

Furthermore, the finding highlighted a fascinating aspect of human history during the Late Pleistocene. Hominins residing in southern East Asia exhibited greater genetic and morphological diversity compared to their northern counterparts. This suggests that early humans who initially arrived in eastern Asia settled in the south before some later migrated northward. The discovery sheds light on early human migration patterns and the complexities of human evolutionary history.

The excavation site of Maludong (Red Deer Cave). Credit: Xueping Ji

According to Bing Su, this discovery holds significant importance in comprehending early human migration. Looking ahead, the team aims to further sequence ancient human DNA from fossils in southern East Asia, particularly those predating the Red Deer Cave individuals.

This additional data will not only offer a more comprehensive understanding of our ancestors’ migratory patterns but will also provide crucial insights into how humans adapted physically to local environments over time. For instance, variations in skin color due to changes in sunlight exposure can be better understood through these ancient genetic analyses. Su’s research promises to unveil fascinating aspects of human evolution and shed light on the historical journey of our species.

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